“While Away” – my photographic project portraying MPP students and their stories

Before coming to Oxford I trained as a social anthropologist. I was drawn to that discipline because of my general interest in people and their stories. As a researcher, I developed some photographic skills and tried to use photography not only as a way of illustrating a story, but as a mean of understanding different contexts.

When I arrived in Oxford for the Master of Public Policy (MPP), I started photographing using film again, especially for the unique visuals that particular types of film offer. In contrast to digital photography, film demands you to slow down and really think about what you want to convey with each picture. I got a couple of old film cameras and started taking some portraits. 

At first, I was surprised to see so much diversity in the MPP class. Of course, I expected to meet people from all around the world, and the MPP is known for having one of the most international groups in the University. This year alone there are almost 50 different nationalities in my class, each person with a very interesting story to tell.

Oxford is a unique city. For centuries, people have come here for the prestigious university, and then went back to their own lives afterwards. This is also true for us MPP students, we are just passing through in a moment of our lives. When summer is over we will head back to our countries or future projects.

The title ‘While Away’ is a reference to that transitory moment – a year – which we spend in Oxford and to the memories of home we all carry.

Being foreigners means that we bring our memories and stories with us. Sometimes these are connected to specific objects, such as attires, a picture, or a piece of jewellery. These connections to our origins help us deal with difficult moments that are inevitable during the year. We often find comfort in the familiar, and even abroad we carry something that links us to our home.

So, when I approached my colleagues for the pictures I asked them to bring something that reminded them of their origins and home. I tried to keep the concept as broad as possible, for some fellow MPP students do not have a single country or nation of origin, but many.

When I decided to start this project I thought about photographing my friends in the rooms where they live in Oxford. My idea was that each one of us shapes that environment as close as possible to what they see as ‘home’. But I also thought this might be too invasive. So, I realised that what I wanted to show in the photos was how students dealt with the feeling of being away from home. So, the physical space did not matter as much as their stories and what they considered reminders of their homes.

At first, it was a bit challenging to convince people to join the project, but after the first pictures were posted, some colleagues approached me wanting their photo taken as well. I’m now in the middle of a roll of film and some classmates who are staying in Oxford throughout the summer would like to participate in the project.

MPP student Zuzana Hlavkova
Zuzana Hlavkova with the front cover of a newspaper with two photos of the 1989 and 2018 pro-democracy and anti-corruption protests in Slovakia to which she has contributed. I took this portrait shortly after Zuzana Caputova won Slovakia’s presidential election. 
Anjali Viswamohanan with a cheeseburger. Consumption of beef is considered to be an act of political subversion in India. “My home state of Kerala protested the nation-wide beef ban by cooking beef in public, organised by college activists”.
Cláudio Gonzalez with a triptych of surrealist Mexican painter Leonora Carrington.
Nasser Diallo with a traditional necklace from Guinea, West Africa.
Prosper Ahmed Amuquandoh showing a pin with the Coat of Arms of Ghana. Prosper is frequently wearing it. “The symbol represents the values of the countries of Africa: freedom and justice. So that a country is free from colonial oppression and pursues justice for every citizen.”
Aigerim Zhaparova with a Kyrgyz vest. “In Kyrgyz language a vest is ‘chyptama’. It’s one of the many elements of traditional women’s clothing. The clothes reflect the nomadic culture and tribal traditions of Kyrgyz people. The patterns and embroideries are very much inspired by nature and carry a cultural significance.”

Pedro Stoeckli Pires is currently studying for a Master of Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government. As a public servant and a social anthropologist, Pedro has been working with the Ministry of Social Development and Evaluation Department in Brazil.

More images from this project can be seen on his Instagram account.

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